BENGHAZI, Libya — The head of the rebel Libyan army and two of his aides were killed Thursday amid accusations he was conducting back-channel talks on behalf of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. His death threatened to derail an already fractured rebel effort.
For NATO allies struggling to understand who exactly they are backing, the death of Gen. Abdel Fatah Younes is likely raise more questions about who the rebels are and how they would conduct themselves if Gadhafi lost control of the capital. Hours after the announcement of Younes' death, gunshots rang out in downtown Benghazi.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the leader of the Transitional National Council that serves as the rebel government, told reporters that Gadhafi loyalists had killed Younes and two of his aides as they were returning to Benghazi from Brega, an oil town on the Mediterranean coast that rebel forces have been trying to seize for months without success.
But the chain of events was confusing. Hours earlier, the TNC had ordered Younes, 67, to return from Brega for questioning in what Jalil called a military matter, and rumors swirled throughout the day that he was being accused of conducting secret talks with the Gadhafi government.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Younes was Gadhafi's interior minister prior to his defection to the rebels earlier this year.
Jalil offered no details of the ambush that he said resulted in Younes' death, but he said the bodies of Younes and his two aides had not been recovered.
There was no claim of responsibility from Gadhafi's government as of Thursday night.
Younes, who publicly declared his break with Gadhafi just days after the rebel uprising began in February, never won the trust of many of the men he led, some of whom expressed concern that Younes had worked for Gadhafi since the 1969 coup that brought the 27-year-old Gadhafi to power.
As interior minister, Younes held a key security post in Gadhafi's government for years, and some rebels felt he should have been tried for his Gadhafi ties, not selected as the movement's military leader.
But other rebels, particularly the so-called special forces who defected with him, viewed him with awe. Younes, sitting in the back of an SUV and waving to the fighters, often was greeted with cheers and celebratory gunfire when he visited the frontlines. Scores of Libyans changed their Facebook profile photos to his to mourn his loss.
His death will leave rebels scrambling to find a new battlefield commander.
On Thursday, Jalil, who also once was a member of Gadhafi's cabinet, called Younes "one of the heroes of the 17th of February revolution" and declared three days of mourning.
More than 30 nations have recognized the TNC as the legitimate leaders of Libya, including Britain and the United States. But officials privately express concern about how capable the rebel council was.
Despite a five-month NATO bombing campaign intended to drive Gadhafi from power, rebel forces have made little military headway. In recent weeks, Britain and France have said Gadhafi might be allowed to remain in Libya if he would agree to cede power.
(Zway and Fitory are McClatchy special correspondents. Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY